Tuesday, June 29, 2004

My trip to Egypt


Egypt has always been a dream destination to many of us. It is not only due to the charm of the Land of the Pharaohs , but also the current country , it’s people, food, and its entire civilization that makes one crave to go there.

My first conscious thought about wanting to visit, was watching those beautiful black and white movies of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s for which the Egyptian movie industry was famous. They made me long to go to Alexandria, Cairo, the desert, Upper Egypt and of course all the historical places and gardens.

Little did I know that for about 9 years it would become a must destination on my travel route- courtesy of the US and Security Council sanctions. Yes, since we were not allowed to fly anywhere out of Libya, we had three choices before pursuing an onward journey:
(1) Drive to Tunis,
(2) Drive to Egypt,
(3) Take the ferry to Malta.
All three are of course harrowing experiences which I will deal with in another post about US sanctions.

Sometimes if you did not want solution (2), but still had to take your connection flight from Egypt you could go to Malta, and fly to Egypt from there then catch the next segment of your journey.

This is all to say that I saw a lot of Egypt (lucky me eh?).

Well this week my trip to Egypt was by choice (yippee), and I enjoyed meeting many of my family and school friends there. However, no matter how many times I’ve been to Cairo, I keep forgetting the small things which get on my nerves and make me say never again, but the advantages are always better and I find myself once again in good old Cairo.

As the plane touches down, you will find people clapping, this always embarrasses me, I mean come on it is the pilot’s job to get you safely not a heroic feat!
Everything runs smoothly until you actually step down from the shuttle bus and into the immigration department. You are assaulted by frantically waving bank exchange agents who have set up a booth conveniently before the passport checks, and each one wants to peddle his bank instead of letting you choose..

The immigration procedure is fine and straightforward ( if you choose the correct lane: Arabs, Egyptians, Foreigners), just take your turn, then move on to the next step: luggage collection, you pay one dollar for a porter and trolley and he goes with you to the taxi. “Great” you say, but wait a second, as soon as you have booked the porter he starts his litany of asking for a tip Egyptian style. This is very very annoying because he WILL not shut up. I don’t mind tipping, but I want to have the choice to do so as an appreciation for his service and not by force. We do not have this habit in Libya, in fact we do not tip, and I hope that my country will not be spoiled now that we have so many tourists. I appreciate that people want to make a living and that Egypt has a lot of economic problems but tipping is a personal thing. The issue is that everybody from the cab driver to the policeman will ask you for a tip even though they are doing their job and you already paid your fare, a watchman at the bank will request a tip, even though he is a salaried employee and has done nothing to be of actual service to you. Even the security officer at the end of the parking area of the airport wants a tip “kol sana wa anta tayeb” or happy new year !
You have to be very precise and to the point otherwise you are lost in Egypt.

Cairo is huge and the traffic is horrendous despite the underground tunnels and flyovers. I like it but for a couple of days only, the buildings have unfortunately gotten too polluted downtown. It is a lively city, in fact it never sleeps, shopping is available till very late and some restaurants never close.

I went to Al - Hussein mosque (very famous ‘saint’) and was surprised to find that there was now an entrance for men and a separate one for women. This was not so last time I was there. We used to be able to circle and pray around the tomb of the Muslim saint but now there is a partition which I hate. Because of it people are being encouraged to nap in the mosque and generally contributing to dirtying it (impossible before as both sexes would pray/meditate and leave not hang around).

Through my meandering in Adly Street (central Cairo) I stumbled into a tiny side street with which I fell in love at first sight; it was full of the ordinary masses, what I call the real people of a country. There were lots of sidewalk caf├ęs and restaurant, but not the high- street kind. You would be surprised as I was, that the food or coffee actually was fresher and better here. My theory : no old stocks because thousands sat there throughout the day. I liked a small restaurant specializing in fish food. The owner cooked the best shrimps/prawns I ever tasted except in Thailand. There are only 2 tables and 9 chairs and a little counter. I enjoyed the experience so much that I went again. Prices are affordable,service warm and there is a fish stall conveniently across the street (you get to choose your own meal).I found it beats five star restaurants.

Egyptians are very resourceful people and will find many ways to make a buck, I saw street vendors, kiosk, and corner shops selling calls from their cells phones, apparently it’s lucrative and you can use their phone for 75 piastres. Comes in handy when you’re in a hurry, and no payphone nearby.

Tourism has picked up recently, witness to that are the long queues in front of the museum. However I did not visit the pyramids this year as I had a negative experience last year. If you thought that they were located in the desert, well not anymore, the city has crawled to surround them and in fact there is a fence wall now which was disappointing as the romance was gone for me, too commercialized. I recommend going with a tour group, too unsafe otherwise.

Another high attraction is the Khan Khalili old souk, that’s very nice though very tourist oriented baubles again. I love going to a jeweler there that makes original pieces. For the correct prize you get a unique piece including some antique furniture.

Of course sipping your drink on the Nile bank is a beautiful experience.
While in Egypt I took the opportunity to contact a fellow blogger ‘big pharaoh’, we did not manage to meet but we spoke on the phone. He is genuine and a very nice candid person. I liked his style even tough I may not agree with him over points, and I look forward to meeting with him next time I pass bye.

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